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Saturday, June 04, 2011

Department of Book Reports: John Steinbeck


There were a couple of things that happened this week that go me to thinking about American Literature, and some of the great writers our country has produced. One was hearing the NPR story about the Library of America's inclusion of Kurt Vonnegut into its canon. (The Library of America does publish beautiful editions of American authors. Unfortunately there are not inexpensive.) The other was viewing John Ford's classic re-telling of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1940 and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, which SeattleTammy and I did earlier this week. I thought it might be fun and instructive to do a series of book reports on American authors, and start with the American modernists, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Later in the series we can see who might be comparable in the latter half of the 20th century.

Of the four listed, Steinbeck is probably the least critically regarded. I'm not sure why that is, except that his prose can be a bit "preachy", but I never found him to be as didactic as, say, George Bernard Shaw, who tended to write history lessons in his plays. Part of that is, in relation to the other big four, Steinbeck spoke most directly to injustice in America. That is certainly true in what is thought of as his Dustbowl trilogy, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck was also at ease with writing both epics (like East of Eden), and small stories (The Red Pony), all dealing with the hopes and dreams of real people, and how those dreams can be thwarted by the evils of capitalism and the worse angels of our society. But the dreams are never forgotten and never completely beaten. There is always hope at the end.

I'm thinking especially of the end of The Grapes of Wrath, which has both a devastating and yet, ironically, uplifting end. Obviously, for the time it was made, Ford could not shoot the Steinbeck ending of the novel, and substituted the equally uplifting speech from Ma Joad. But the book end with RoseofSharon giving birth to a stillborn baby, malnourished, but willing and able to suckle a dying boy in a barn.

And speaking of the Ford movie, Steinbeck, of all the great American modernists, created the most cinematic work. As good a job as Hollywood did with Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms (Gary Cooper version), I believe both films of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men (Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney jr. is prefered, though the Sinise/Malkovich film is good). The Ford movie is a classic, and though it doesn't follow the narrative of the novel with complete faith, the spirit of the book is in there. It also served as the basis for Woody Guthrie's epic song, Tom Joad. I think Steinbeck wrote with the eye, visually constructing his work. His scenes, his vision is vivid. And it is not like there is not some depth to his work either. One thinks of the Trask family in East of Eden representing the original family of the Judean-Christian bible. Or Preacher Jim Casy, who may have lost his calling, but sets out with the twelve members of the Joad family for the pastures of plenty.


I heartily recommend reading, or re-reading John Steinbeck. As it would seem, his stories are not out-dated and still touch us today. Many of his books are available at Jackson Street Books and fine Independent bookstores everywhere. Visit us on Facebook Jackson Street Books.

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